This guest posting by Josef Eisinger is dedicated to Eric Koch, himself a sometime fiddler.
In 1931 and 1932, Einstein spent several weeks in Oxford where he resided in Christ Church College and spent many evenings playing chamber music in the home of Helena and Margaret Deneke. These two sisters, who played an important role in Oxford’s musical life, had invited string players to play quartets with Einstein. They were sometimes joined by Margaret, who was a pianist and had studied with Clara Schumann’s daughter in Germany. Margaret conversed with Einstein in German and was in the habit to writing almost verbatim accounts of their conversations in a notebook immediately after she parted from him. Thanks to her, and to the Bodleian Library where Margaret’s notebook is preserved, we are able to hear Einstein chatting about musical matters – a subject that for Einstein rivalled physics in importance.
Einstein had not brought his violin to Oxford and before dinner, Margaret showed him one that she had borrowed for his use.
AE: Well, that is about the worst violin I ever laid my hands on. It is completely hoarse! But if you will play very softly, let us try a little Mozart. It’s tone is not beautiful, but Mozart is hard to keep down – such a wealth of beauty!
They played a sonata and at dinner Einstein was asked about Albert Schweitzer’s book about Bach.
AE: Well, I have not read it and, quite generally, I am not fond of discussions about art, it is the passion itself that I love.
On another evening MD asked Einstein for his opinion of a violin she had been offered to buy.
AE: I am not particularly knowledgeable about violins but I do have a certain feeling if an instrument is good – and I am rarely wrong. I’ll be interested to see your violin.
After playing on it he said: I advise you not to buy it because it is very uneven in tone. You should rather buy a cheap fiddle for 25 marks and give it to a man I know who fixed my fiddle for me. He added a little varnish, cut away bits of wood, etc., to improve the tone. It’s the only violin I own. In California I saw some old Italian violins that were strong and yet sensitive. The wood of my “fixed-up,” cheap violin is very thin and it has a clear voice, not of course up to the Italian fiddles, but it cost only 200 marks for fixing it up and 20 marks for the fiddle.
Einstein then played second violin in Mozart and Haydn quartets and after playing the Brahms piano quintet (op. 34) with Margaret, he complained:
AE: I had so many rests to count and cheated so much that I should have become a banker.
It is interesting that Einstein’s quartet partners were all eminent professionals. The first violinist Marie Soldat, for instance, had been a protegé of Johannes Brahms and Josef Joachim sixty years earlier and had a brilliant career as soloist and quartetist behind her.